Friday, April 2, 2010

Death 2.0: Digital Mourning

ResearchBlogging.orgAs today is Good Friday, perhaps it's a good time to talk about death in the digital world. While millions of Catholics engage in rituals of remembering today, I'd like to talk about how Web 2.0 technologies are changing the experience of death for those charged with remembering.

Death has been referred to as the great equalizer—it is the one fate we cannot escape. And cultures around the world have developed highly ritualized approaches to coping with death. For example, Alan Klima (2002) documents the funeral casino in Thailand where rites of exchange work to mediate the relationships between the living, and between the living and the deceased (7). In Thailand, Klima reports, wakes are transformed into impromptu casinos. He describes the wake scene of the death of a beloved father:
Dealers came and set up roulette wheels. Or they came with a bowl of dice and a big betting rug, each one good for a crowd of ten or twenty gamblers to sit around and cast their lots. The house family let loose, on the crowds, quart-sized bottles of Mekong brand rice rum to navigate through the spaces between bodies, with mixer bottles of Coke, Pepsi, Singha soda, water, and tin buckets of ice in hot pursuit. Packs of slicing and dicing cousins and aunts were spinning out plates of fried meats, raw pork, and saucy vegetables from their encampment in the kitchen. Family members were send forth onto the casino floor, to extract from time to time a cut of the dealers' profits. And the dealers were raking it in all over the place, starting from gambling operations set up right next to and under the coffin of the dead father, fanning out over the whole living room floor space, out onto the porch, and beyond that, spilling into the open air of the yard in the front ... And they kept coming—mourners, gamblers, and dealers ... Of course, no one would sit down to play without first bowing to the corpse—could you imagine that, placing your precious money at risk with a big coffin standing over you, to which you haven't paid respects? (2002: 248).
Ravina Aggarwal (2001) writes of a funeral feast she attended in the village of Achinathang:
They had come for this last farewell, bringing gifts in memory of this expert weaver who had woven so many robes to clothe their bodies. There was so much beer that the keg was filled. A neighbor collected the offerings on the family's behalf, announcing the house names of the donors. The joking and laughter of the men (who had taken up positions on the right hand side of the threshing ground) merged with the elegy of the widow and her chil- dren (seated on the left) and the incantations recited by the astrologer (who sat at the center). More and more people came (554).
These are both acts of remembering, which are echoed in the rites and rituals of cultures around the world. The purpose for the gathering for the deceased, in whatever form it may take, is both for the benefit of the corpse and that of the family. Many cultures believe the deceased may be confused and requires company until the body can be interred or otherwise disposed of (Klima 2002; Dernbach 2005). And it's a time the network to which the deceased was a member to gather and comfort each other. But wakes and other funeral rites also mark the beginning of a process of distancing. The deceased was fully integrated into a network, the "social and emotional lives of those left behind are intimately tied to the deceased person, and adjusting to this change and loss is a difficult and long- term process" (Dernbach 2005: 100). Conklin (2001) writes that through the grieving process, mourners are "transforming their perceived relationship to the dead person by going through a process in which they gradually confront their memories of the deceased one by one, accept the reality that their relationship to the deceased has ended, and let go emotionally of their attachments to the object of their loss" (171).

The process of memorial is also a process of forgetting. There is a mourning period for the community. For example, in the Jewish religion, the deceased are meant to be buried within 24 hours of death foregoing any extenuating circumstances. The family then sits shiva, or mourns for a week, or less depending on how observant they are of the religious practices. While private grief may continue long after the "prescribed" mourning period, there comes a point where the deceased's public memory is reduced to a death anniversary. The deceased is removed from the network. But Web 2.0 is changing the experience of death—both for the deceased as well as the survivors. Web 2.0 is making death an interactive experience, providing mourners with an opportunity to access a community for support, while sharing their grief and preserving memories of the deceased.

The growing popularity of the memorial pages on Facebook suggests that grief and death have moved online. Of course, we had clear indications that this was the case as the Twitterverse responded to the deaths of celebrities like Michael Jackson in 2009. Memorial pages, however, allow mourners to collectively gather and share mementos with one another in a single place—sentiments, photos, videos, even music can all be stored in a single virtual location to be accessed whenever desired.  It provides a digital address for the deceased where mourners can continually visit, whereas Twitter more provides an opportunity for an immediate response. And it's not limited to those within the deceased's network.  Memorial pages prolong the process of distancing, but they also reinforce the connections that members of the network have with each other—even with the deceased gone. For example, a student who created a memorial page for a victim of the Virginia Tech tragedy felt that Facebook allowed the community to pull together: “We were all scattered around the country, but this was a way we could be together.” In this way, the social network is not ruptured or forced into reshaping itself to account for the loss of a member, as may be the case in off-line mourning. The process process for distancing is gradual in this model. Furthermore, the digital management of death appears gives people more control over how the deceased will be remembered in terms of what they choose to share and post about the deceased.

This does potentially raise some issues, however. For example, what if the family is not comfortable with the content of the memorial? Or wants the memorial removed? Does the digital community that participated in the memorial have any say? And should they even be considered in this decision? As grief and mourning become more public, these may be issues that have to be contended with. Of course, some feel that Twitter has handicapped our ability to mourn. What are your thoughts?

Aggarwal, R. (2001). At the Margins of Death: Ritual Space and the Politics of Location in an Indo-Himalayan Border Village American Ethnologist, 28 (3), 549-573 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2001.28.3.549

Conklin, B. (2001). Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. Austin.

Dernbach, Katherine Boris. (2005). Spirits of the Hereafter: Death, Funerary Possession, and the Afterlife in Chuuk, Micronesia. Ethnology, 44 (2), 99-123

Klima, Alan. (2002). The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: University Press.


  1. This is very interesting! I am an undergrad senior studying anthropology, and I am considering writing my final paper on death rites and rituals. This would be a very interesting topic! Thanks for the food for thought!